Election Shocker a Prelude? Wait and See

Andrew E. Busch

November 1, 2002

The November 5 elections were an historic victory for Republicans in a variety of ways.

For only the third time in the last century—and the first time by a Republican—the president’s party gained seats in the U.S. House. For only the ninth time in the last 28 midterm elections, the president’s party gained Senate seats in a midterm election. For the first time since direct election of Senators began, the president’s party seized control of the Senate in a midterm election. For only the third time in the last fifty years, Republicans have control of the presidency, the House, and the Senate simultaneously (the other two times were for two years after Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first election in 1952 and for the first four months of George W. Bush’s presidency).

Summer predictions by Richard Gephardt that Democrats would gain 30-40 seats in the House on the strength of the corporate corruption scandals were completely upended. Instead, faced with House losses, Gephardt, like Newt Gingrich in 1998, is stepping down as his party’s leader. His dreams of the Speakership are over, and it seems likely that his presidential aspirations have been dealt a blow. Tom Daschle did not fare much better, though his personal stake in election day was salvaged by Tim Johnson’s (apparent) razor-thin win against John Thune in South Dakota. Even in the governorships, while Republicans suffered a net loss consistent with the midterm pattern, it was smaller than predicted, and Republicans still hold at least half of the states.

There are two important questions: Why? And what difference does it make?

Partisans and analysts will be debating the first question for months or even years. The first place to start is by reviewing the explanations usually offered for the existence of the midterm election pattern of presidential losses. As it turns out, most, if not all, of those explanations were inoperative in 2002, a fact which was clear long before election day. For example, some argue that the midterm pattern is a result of the withdrawal of presidential coattails in midterm years, but George W. Bush had no national coattails in 2000, when Republicans lost four House seats. Others argue, in the “surge and decline” theory, that it is the withdrawal from the electorate of pro-president independents and weak partisans in midterm years that is decisive, but Bush did not lead the nationally-aggregated popular vote in 2000. There was no “surge” then that could have led to a “decline” in 2002. Yet others hypothesize that presidential party losses are related to the degree to which his party is “overexposed” in Congress, holding a number of seats that is larger than the party’s “normal” or average share over a defined period of time. However, the average calculated from 1994—when a radically new congressional balance was first introduced—to the present was higher than the actual Republican seat share, largely due to the fact that Republicans had lost House seats three elections in a row. The number of truly vulnerable Republicans had been shaved to a very small number. Finally, the “national conditions” or “referendum” model holds presidential party losses to correlate to factors like presidential approval ratings and economic conditions. While the economy was sluggish, it was not terrible; at 5.6 percent through most of the fall, unemployment was exactly the same as the average during the expansion from 1992-1999. At the same time, presidential popularity was at unprecedented levels for an extended period. Thus, there was every reason to believe that Republicans would hold their own.

That the conditions existed for a solid Republican showing did not make such a showing inevitable. Republicans ran a strong campaign, Bush did not hesitate to throw his popularity into the fray, and Democrats never found a unifying theme. On the two key issues of the election season—Iraq and the economy—Democrats failed to either draw distinctions or reap the benefits of moderation. Except for Walter Mondale, who was ever true to form, most Democrats in tight races approved war with Iraq and neither called for repeal of the Bush tax cuts, the signature economic policy of the Bush administration, nor presented a coherent alternative. On both issues, they found themselves boxed in. On Iraq, they could either go along—becoming irrelevant and dampening enthusiasm among their left wing base—or they could oppose the president, and expose themselves to attack from the right and center. On taxes, they hoped to have it both ways—subtly criticizing Bush without painting themselves as tax raisers in the middle of an economic slowdown, a position which is neither politically popular nor economically sound. This proved too clever by half. Meanwhile, corporate corruption—the silver bullet of summer—faded quickly as Republicans adapted and counterattacked. It was a difficult case for Democrats to make with Terry “Moneybags” McAuliffe as party chairman.

In a larger sense, November 5 demonstrated what many have suspected for some time. The Democratic Party is not well; Bill Clinton did not revive it so much as conceal its illness. Clinton himself—with his political skills, his smooth ability to tell three people three different things and make them all believe, and the “circle the wagons” mentality he elicited from Democrats as a response to the passionate enemies he acquired—was the glue that held the party together. Even during his presidency, however, its atrophy below the presidential level was evident to careful observers. Now that Clinton is gone, Democrats are in the wilderness. With Clinton, they traded conviction for tactical acumen. In his absence, they have demonstrated neither.

The consequences, of course, are difficult to predict with certainty. One possible result is that—like Republicans in the aftermath of their 1998 fiasco—Democrats may begin to look outside the Beltway for a presidential candidate. Gray Davis is wounded and probably ineligible; who else may step forward is unclear. John Kerry, who won a landslide reelection in Massachusetts, may be the only open contender from inside the Beltway whose cause was not harmed on Tuesday. With most contenders having been taken down a notch—and with Bush’s real strength displayed—pressure may mount on Hillary Rodham Clinton to lead a drive for restoration. At any rate, Democrats will be consumed for some time with the task of affixing blame.

Republicans, for their part, will have the onus for action squarely on themselves, though the rules of the Senate create multiple roadblocks for any majority as small as the Republicans possess. They will have, perhaps, more responsibility than power. The logjam of judicial and executive appointments, however, will certainly end, and prospects will brighten for other items on the administration’s agenda.

Does this election represent an aberration, or perhaps even a sign that the structure of American politics has become so competitive and so localized that the midterm pattern has been ended as a political rule? Or does it portend a major underlying shift in voter loyalties, a first step toward Karl Rove’s aim of building an enduring Republican majority coalition? Unfortunately, the answer to that question will depend on the unpredictable course of events and how the parties respond to those events. In 1994, Republicans mistakenly thought that “realignment” was their destiny. So far, the White House has been more circumspect, calling the results an “opportunity” rather than a “mandate.” If Bush and congressional Republicans act accordingly, 2002 could prove to be momentous indeed.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.